Challenging times for houses of history

Visitors viewing one of the exhibits at the National Museum. In reality, museums are competing against theme parks and entertainment outlets for visitors. — Photos: GRACE CHEN and SAMUEL ONG/The Star

IT IS educational; a way of providing an interactive bridge to the past; a significant tourist attraction.

These are some of the ways the public define museums.

But visitors feel public museums are currently not fulfilling their roles.

And the people have a long complaint list to voice out dissatisfactions.

At the National Textile Museum for example, many of the exhibits were void of textual explanations.

One of the exhibits at the Textile Museum.
One of the exhibits at the Textile Museum.

In one section, displays were not lighted.

Over at the Sultan Alam Shah Museum, a doll from Hungary had its country of origin labelled as “Hungry”.

Visitors to the National Automobile Museum in Sepang reported a drive shaft was misspelt as “shalf”.

There was also not enough information on why a 1904 Brushmobile vintage car was chosen as a star attraction other than that it was acquired from an antique supplier and there was only one such model in the country.
Car enthusiasts also complained that details explaining the different drive trains used in the different models of the national car sounded like they came out of an advertisement brochure.

There were no explanations on how the engines had evolved from one technology to another.

Visitors to the National Museum's temporary exhibition hall said it was extremely hot because the air-conditioner was not working.

Royal Museum volunteer guide Muhammad Rohaizam Hussin says the 14-pointed star and crescent pinned on the destar is worn by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong during the coronation.
Royal Museum volunteer guide Muhammad Rohaizam Hussin says the 14-pointed star and crescent pinned on the destar is worn by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong during the coronation.

Apologetic museum staff explained that they were experiencing technical difficulties.

The Star reader J. S. Rao had also written in about the abrupt closure of the Natural History Museum in Precinct 15, Putrajaya.

He described it as a “great disappointment to all the schools, residents and hopeful visitors.”

“The Natural History Museum has done a wonderful job in introducing the different periods throughout time.

“It has played a great role in educating visitors.

“I hope the museum authority will relook at their social obligation and consider keeping the museum open at the same place,” he wrote.

When National Museum director Azmi Ismail was asked about the future of our local museums, he was upfront in his assessment of the situation.

At the National Automobile Museum a drive shaft was labelled as shalf.
At the National Automobile Museum a drive shaft was labelled as shalf.

“Museums are facing stiff competition from theme parks and entertainment outlets,” he said.

The days when no holiday would be complete without a stop at a state or city museum are long gone.

It is not beyond the Museums Department to fight it out with the commercial outlets for visitors, but they face two main challenges -- budget constraints and vandalism.

“Because of budget restrictions, it is not possible to come up with exhibition upgrades every year.

“The National Museum was renovated at a cost of RM20mil but this was only started after more than 30 years,” said Azmi.

Museum staff are also appalled by the “rough” behaviour of some visitors especially when it comes to touchscreen and interactive devices.

“The electronic devices are fragile. After seeing off a busload of children, we are bound to find damaged items.

“These equipment are expensive so it will take time to replace them,” said Azmi when explaining the frequency of “out of order” notices.

Vandals have defaced entire panels of text descriptions.

This happened in the gallery housing skeletons from the Stone Age era found during the Gua Cha dig.

Azmi said the department managed 22 museums and only had between RM40mil and RM60mil with which to pay for salaries, maintenance and extend funding aid to state museums as well as replace damaged exhibits, so vandals were stretching a very overtaxed budget.

The public museums do not get much from gate collection as admission is either free or with very minimal entrance fee.

The state of public museums was not always like this, said National Museum curator Roslelawati Abdullah recalling the glory days.

She herself was there when the excavation team discovered the hidden bastion of Porta De Santiago in Melaka.

Former National Museum director Datuk Dr Adi Taha also made history when he took part in the archaeological Gua Cha dig in Kelantan.

And who can forget the shrunken heads exhibition in 2004? Or the “Ghosts and Spirits” special exhibition that drew record crowds?

There is no denying museums have contributed to knowledge expansion, said media strategist Dave Avran, 52.

He cited the Sarawak Museum in Kuching which had highlighted the significance of early pioneers, traditional trading activities, the formation of trade and community associations and the involvement of the Chinese community that contributed to a modern multi-racial Sarawak.

No matter what, visitors say they appreciate the intellectual edge a visit to the museum can provide.

“Museums enable visitors to interact with the past, it offers opportunities for society to look at how humans have progressed or regressed,” said bank executive Cindy Goh, 44.

This, she said, had made her think of the infinite possibilities of the future.

On action for improvement, Museums Department collections management division curator Kiew Yeng Meng acknowledged that more attention needed to be paid to accuracy in exhibit labelling, including proofreading and spellchecking.

On improving the attraction factor of museums today, Kiew said there was a committee to discuss exhibition themes and schedules.

A dental clinic exhibit at the Royal Museum.
A dental clinic exhibit at the Royal Museum.

“This is done one year ahead,” she disclosed.

The department has conducted a survey to determine what will please the teenage crowd.

Dinosaurs, subjects steeped in mystique and cartoon characters have come out tops.

In response to this, the National Museum has slotted a cartoon exhibition for this December.

But Kiew is also hoping that visitors, especially those from the digital age generation, will exercise their imagination when visiting a museum.

Case in point is the bronze Avalokitesvara statue, a National Heritage housed in Gallery A, found in 1936 in a tin mine in Bidor, Perak.

Carbon dating puts this statue’s existence to between 7AD and 12AD.

“Just imagine how this statue was made back then when people had yet to come up with modern technology,” she said.

To better promote museums to the younger generation, the “1 Student 1 Museum” campaign, is hoped to give the department a much needed boost.

Aimed at bringing museums into classrooms, the programme is to be part of the school syllabus. It will be officially launched soon.

One of those in the Generation Z who visits museums is Muhd Hakim Kamarudin, 16.

It is his novel way of preparing for History tests. He visits the museum a day before.

Spotted at the National Museum with his family one afternoon, the teenager said he spent the most time in Gallery B where the Malay kingdom exhibits were housed.

“It helps me to remember the dates and facts better when there are actual visual references,” said Muhd Karim.

Azreen remembers visiting museums for  history projects during her secondary school days in Kuching, Sarawak.
Azreen remembers visiting museums for  history projects during her secondary school days in Kuching, Sarawak.

Laundry shop owner Azreen Mohamed, 36, also remembers visiting museums for history projects during her secondary school days in Kuching, Sarawak.

“To me, the artifacts were magical and enchanting.

“I would spend hours there just reading the exhibit labels. It helped me put a creative edge to my projects. Sometimes I would get goosebumps looking at the dioramas because they looked so life-like,” she said.

Now based in Ipoh, Perak, Azreen said she would not think twice about bringing her nephews and nieces to the Perak Museum in Taiping as it was one of the oldest museums in the peninsula.

“I will show them every nook and corner. Tell them stories behind each artefact.

“Bring history to life for their sake,” said this doting aunt.

With private establishments added to the count, there are about 200 museums in Malaysia today.

Central Region , Metro , museums , complaints


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